Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
Keith Mrotek mixing a cocktail at Norseman Distillery in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Keith Mrotek mixing it up at Norseman
A year ago there were no cocktail rooms in the Twin Cities. Now there are half a dozen such bars attached to local distilleries, and they’re some of the most interesting watering holes we’ve ever had. Small-scale distilleries are a new thing in Minnesota, ushered in by 2011’s so-called “Surly Bill,” which overhauled brewing and distilling hereabouts. The most significant change was that the annual fee for distilleries was lowered from a prohibitive $30,000 a year to an amount prorated to production volume, starting as low as around $1,000. Since the law change, Minnesota has seen a distillery boom, with a dozen small spirit producers popping up around the state. More recent legislation has allowed for “cocktail rooms” (similar to brewery taprooms), where distilleries are allowed to sell cocktails made from spirits produced on-site.
The rules are important. Cocktail rooms are allowed to sell any alcohol they themselves create blended with anything you can buy in a grocery store such as vanilla, tonic, grapefruit, and bitters. They can’t use anything another distiller or alcohol producer creates—so no Tanqueray, vermouth, orange curaçao, beer, or sparkling wine. This has led to an explosion in local distilling creativity, with distillers creating their own cordials, brandies, and vermouth variations in order to serve the cocktails they want. (Most local distilleries in Minnesota are crafting grain-to-glass, meaning they distill their own products from scratch. There are a few labels such as Gentleman Scholar and Crooked Water that buy base spirits from a larger distiller and tinker with them in some way, though none of them have opened cocktail rooms yet.)
This summer, it was declared that a cocktail room could sell one 375-milliliter bottle of its own spirits per day per customer. So be sure to look around for these hard-to-find little bottles, which just happen to be the perfect size for stocking stuffers. Would Santa approve? Probably—he seems to be a big fan of folks making stuff by hand in their workshops.
Tattersall Distilling Company
The scene at Tattersall, the must-visit Twin Cities cocktail room.
Tattersall is the jewel in the crown of Twin Cities cocktail rooms, opened by longtime bartender and flavor-meister Dan Oskey (The Strip Club and founder of Joia Soda) and his childhood friend Jon Kreidler in a funny industrial space in Northeast Minneapolis that requires a jaunt down a funny industrial alley. It feels like what the cool cocktail kids would come up with if there were no limits on them except what they could dream up—and that’s pretty much what it is. Tattersall has big, important bartenders running the show, namely Bennett Johnson (Cafe Maude, Hola Arepa) and Timmy Leary (La Belle Vie, The Inn, The Strip Club). The pair has more than a dozen distilled products at their disposal, including a gorgeously deep and fresh sour cherry liqueur made from Montmorency cherries, the state’s first variation on that cult Italian amaro Fernet-Branca, and the brand’s flagship product, a gin Oskey and Kreidler developed after 85 recipes. And there’s more to come—Tattersall has hired consultants to get new ingredients approved by the FDA for use in alcohol. The drinks the bartenders make with their house-made spirits are equal parts cutting edge (a centrifuge-clarified bloody mary) and straight-up delicious (the house cherry liqueur and umeboshi plum vinegar in the house bourbon sour). Soaring ceilings (the better to hold a 24-foot column still), nightly food trucks, professional staff, and the Brooklyn loft party vibe make the place popular (500 people can show up on a Wednesday)—and deservedly so. Whatever our state legislatures imagined when they put laws in place to allow distillery cocktail rooms was likely nothing as ambitious and accomplished as this.
1620 Central Ave. NE, Mpls., 612-584-4152, tattersalldistilling.com
Wander North Distillery
Brian Winter opened Minnesota’s first military veteran–owned distillery in the same industrial warehouse that holds Northeast brewery NorthGate. This is important because savvy drinkers will check both establishments’ food-truck calendar to find out what snacks will be on hand. Inside Wander North, you’ll find a cozy, DIY rec-room vibe, a hand-made bar, and a whiteboard where people can pay it forward, buying drinks for customers “in a Social Distortion shirt” or “with the last name Hauser.” Who would you pay it forward for? Whoever it is, they’d likely enjoy Wander North’s vodka made from local corn, showcased in a Moscow mule variation that sizzles with fresh ginger. Winter opened the distillery after retiring from a National Guard engineering battalion. “I can build bridges, I can build houses, I can pretty much do anything I need to do, and then blow things up, too—which is something I try not to do in distilling,” he laughs. Winter does intend to metaphorically blow up by collaborating with local brewers—look for a sort of brandy whiskey made in collaboration with Sociable Cider Werks, and a rye derived from 612Brew’s rye IPA base.
771 NE Harding St., Mpls., 612-276-2189, wandernorthdistillery.com
Du Nord Craft Spirits
Du Nord’s Mule
Minneapolis’s first cocktail room is its most community-minded. In the summertime, owners Shanelle and Chris Montana project movies outside on a giant screen, and everyone in the neighborhood brings lawn chairs and sips Du Nord grain-to-glass White Russians while watching The Big Lebowski. There’s happy-hour pricing at all times for teachers (bring your school ID). Du Nord encourages guests to order food in from any restaurant or just pack it in a picnic basket. This makes it a prime candidate for anyone wanting to throw a last-minute holiday gathering—why not host your cookie exchange in a distillery this year? If you do, be sure to try Du Nord’s new cinnamon-spiced apple cider liqueur, which cries out for a homemade snickerdoodle.
2610 E. 32nd St., Mpls., 612-382-7236, dunordcraftspirits.com
Keith Mrotek mixing it up at Norseman
Minnesota’s biggest cocktail room so far? Norseman, which as of presstime was only hours away from opening. The grain-to-glass outfit was the first new, post-Prohibition distillery in Minneapolis when Scott Ervin opened it in a much smaller Northeast spot in 2013. He recently relocated to an enormous industrial location in Northeast, home to a 250-seat cocktail room with drinks devised by Keith Mrotek, longtime bartender at Marvel Bar, and the coffee guru from Shinola. There’s a bakery case for light snacks from Birchwood and Rustica, room outside for food trucks, and a cocktail menu of smaller, lower-cost drinks meant to showcase Norseman’s product line. Be sure to try something made with the strawberry rhubarb gin—it’s bone-dry but fragrant as a June pie garden. Holiday shoppers take note: Norseman also has the biggest array of cool swag (shirts, hats, flasks, glassware) and is hosting the winter markets for the Northeast Farmer’s Market every third Saturday of the month through March.
451 NE Taft St., Mpls., 612-643-1933, norsemandistillery.com
J. Carver Distillery
A look inside J. Carver
J. Carver currently produces two vodkas and three gins, mostly made from grain grown within 24 miles of the distillery in Waconia. Plus, there’s a new apple brandy and rye whiskey. Founding partner Gina Holman says it has also released Minnesota’s first Marquette grappa, distilled from the grape-and-stem solids leftover after the first crush of local winemaking. Did anyone imagine a former Pontiac dealership would one day hold Minnesota grappa? Of course not, nor did anyone imagine grain-to-glass cocktails in Waconia using ginger and turbinado simple syrup.
1320 Mill Ln., Waconia, 952-442-2433, jcarverdistillery.com
To enter Northfield’s Loon Liquors, first pass through an unassuming door of what looks like an office building. At the end of a hallway is a big warehouse space filled with two-by-fours arranged into shelving and a few decorative lights turned low, in the manner of someone trying to throw a party on a loading dock. And in the manner of some parties on some loading docks, Loon Liquors is terrifically charming. You’ll find one of the two owners, Mark Schiller or Simeon Rossi, behind the bar mixing up drinks like a strawberry-pineapple gin fizz using their gin, which was milled and distilled not 10 feet from your barstool. They’ll also fix you a lovely cheese and charcuterie selection on a pretty vintage crystal plate, and tell you what it’s like to be two high school friends running a small distillery in a new world where there’s suddenly a new distillery to explore down a great many hallways.
1325 Armstrong Rd., Northfield, loonliquors.com